U2 was in the house, and so were George Clooney, Gladys Knight, Amy Grant and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and conductor Tania Leon. To say expectations were high for Sunday night’s (Dec. 6) 45th iteration of the Kennedy Center Honors would be an understatement.
And they were largely met at the star-studded event attended by President Biden, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff.
Knight had performed for 2020 honoree Garth Brooks, who hosted this year’s State Department dinner the preceding night where the honorees received their medallions, and he returned the courtesy by performing her hit “Midnight Train to Georgia,” while schooling the audience on the song’s country roots.
Ariana DeBose talked about how she listened to Knight’s music growing up in North Carolina before launching into “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” And a teary-eyed Patti LaBelle honored her “sister-friend” with stories of their personal and professional bond through six decades before launching into “That’s What Friends Are For.”
LL Cool J had high praise for one of his musical heroes. “Like stars in the night’s sky, Gladys Knight illuminates everyone in her orbit,” he said, adding, “I once heard Gladys sing the ABCs and I thought I was in church.”
On the red carpet before the show, Knight was all smiles about getting to spend time with the current President. ”I feel like he’s my brother. We go back, and he has such a tender heart,” she said.
Cuba-born Leon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for composing the orchestral work “Stride” that was inspired by the activism of Susan B. Anthony, was feted by pianist, producer and composer Chloe Flower and the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz Jason Moran, among others.
Speaking before the show, Leon said she was inspired by the opportunity to be in the White House, which she’d never visited as a tourist. “All this is going to hit me. After I get home and I settle in and have a little bit of tea, I know this is going to do something to me,” she said.
The show-closing tribute was to U2 members Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. Credit to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who in prime Vedder form poured his all into “Elevation” and “One,” the latter of which was a last-minute addition after Mary J Blige had to bow out due to illness.
The 2022 Kennedy Center Honors will air Wednesday, December 28 at 8pm on CBS and stream on sister network Paramount+.